Is ‘Roma’ (2018) as Good as They Say?

“Fellini’s Roma” was attacked in some circles as an example of Fellini coasting on his genius. I find this point of view completely incomprehensible. Critics who would force Fellini back into traditional narrative films are missing the point; Fellini isn’t just giving us a lot of flashy scenes, he’s building a narrative that has a city for its protagonist instead of a single character. 

– Roger Ebert

To open a review with a quote from another critic for another film from almost half a century departed is unusual, but feel free to read it again because this clever insight is the basis for how Alfonso Cuaron’s film should also be judged. Is it fair to say that Cuaron is costing off his visual prowess or does his film likewise achieve a similar effect?

The 1972 ‘Roma’ by the championed Neo-realist Federico Fellini is described by IMDb as,

“A fluid, unconnected and sometimes chaotic procession of scenes detailing the various people and events of life in Italy’s capital, most of it based on director Federico Fellini’s life”

Fellini tosses aside traditional storytelling for a more documentative vignettes; critics might have jeered the lack of a central protagonist or narrative action, but Ebert would claim that that would be to miss the point entirely. Fellini’s love letter to the city and showing the different aspects of the city was the appeal of the film.

Cuaron’s Roma is also a neo-realism film that lacks a traditional plot structure. This Roma however does have a central protagonist but one that is poorly developed and exists as a conduit to transmit the audience into the time, place, and position of Cuaron’s past caretaker. Cuaron’s Roma is at its best when it uses its intrinsic cinematography to establish the settings and give a clear indication of the environment in its entirety.  The cinematography also features high levels of clarity having a high bit of the black and white spectrum that creates vivid images of the locations despite lacking color. With the context of these bleak memories, the inclusion of the natural disasters and political distraught at the time play a heavy role in building the overarching picture of what it is to be in our protagonist’s shoes. There’s a sense that as severe as the personal drama is that there is a whole world of despair that exists just outside the film’s focal point.

However, is it fair to compare what Fellini accomplishes with Roma to what Cuaron accomplishes with Roma. 2018 Roma at times feels like a film that panders to pretentious film critics who want to enjoy bold decisions rather than the execution of them. Roma is in some regards unfortunately shallow, lacking depth in commenting on the social, political, or emotional implications of the place the film so desperately wants to send us to. As an audience, we endure the countless heartbreaks of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), yet what is achieved through witnessing these grievances. A courageous deep dive into the unsung, that at times feels unblemished and clean. Camera techniques of one-shot pans come across less as visual motifs but rather a demonstration of artistic showmanship.

Roma may exist as rather an art piece that uses film as its medium. Instead the beauty of the film might be in the beholder’s abnormally large responsibility to find it themselves. In the narrative invented with the viewer’s interaction with the film. The apparently missing emotional input of these situations by our protagonist is to allow for our own thoughts and feelings on the misfortune, submissiveness, and burdens our character encounters. The intention might be for the audience to indulge in what is left on the canvas and interact as they seem fit but is the static whole of the film undermined by Cuaron’s meddling. In brief moments, Cuaron brings the entire film to a standstill to have a costumed man sing amidst efforts of putting out a fire only for him to retreat back into the woods with no acknowledgement. It is with these active engagements with the audience does Cuaron somewhat concede his intent to achieve greater depth for the film through symbolic and subtextual means rather than allowing audience viewers to see the art for themselves.

Roma is one of those films that greatly reminds us of the capabilities and the philosophy that goes behind the process of filmmaking. It’s a film that I appreciate in more ways than one; Roma brings legitimacy to international and Netflix distributed films and revitalizes the tenets of neo-realism in contemporary filmmaking. Personally, I think Roma 2018 comes up shallow when compared to the greatest works of Fellini or De Sica but does have an emotional weight that is worth dissecting even if the film comes short in infusing those into the events of the film.

It discourages me to know that my questioning of this film’s high approval would probably be disapproved by Ebert and many other great critics. However, my intent is not to as it was originally proposed to “force Fellini back into traditional narrative films” or Cuaron in this specific instance.

What began with questioning Ebert’s comments relevancy to this film, will end with you confronting on my own claim with the same scrutiny within the context of this or other films. To what degree is the boldness of concept praised rather than how the execution of that very concept.

What did you think of Roma? Leave a comment down below.


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